The Zero Theorem: Postmodernism on Screen
Introduction to The Story
Centered around a recluse by the name of Qohen Leth, Gilliam's sci-fi movie is set in an unknown location and time. Leth is by all means a computer genius, but dislikes being outside from his home and refers to himself as 'We' at all times. He hates having to leave for work as he is waiting on a call that will give meaning to his life, so convinces his boss, the manager, to let him work from home on a project trying to prove that LIFE IN fact means nothing. In his isolated home, an abandoned church, he works obsessively and tirelessly figuring it out in code (Zero must equal 100) while simultaneously dealing with unexpected and unwanted visits from various people, like the managers son bob, the beautiful Bainsley and the digital therapist, Dr. Shrink Rom. Its only when he finds love with Bainsley that he finds the meaning in his life, and no longer searches for proof of meaninglessness.
Present or Future?
Leth: Waiting on a call. What other reason is there to answer the phone?
Bainsley: It's better than real. You're in your computer and I'm in mine.
Dr. Shrink Rom: I'm sorry to interrupt but I couldn't help but notice this young ladies pathological attempt to project upon you her Daddy issues of abandonment....
The setting to the film is unknown but gives a futuristic feel, yet set somewhere in the 21st Century, like Gillliam's previous '12 Monkeys'. It has the characteristics of Postmodernity; chaotic, confusing and with a steam punk vibe. Consumerism is almost a religion, advertisements follow people down the path, and everything is revolved around revolutionary products and technology. Graffiti blankets every wall. posters and bright crass colored signs hang everywhere. It is in a sense simply an exaggeration of the present, everything we see looks unusual and different, yet familiar, Kitsch and Hyper real.. We are plagued with advertisements that literally follow us everywhere, on smart phones and tablets, radios, and tv's. Consumerism is one the most talked about topics now, all we can think about is getting the next new phone, or games console, or designer clothing.
There also appears to be no form of culture, or etiquette in the society that Leth inhabits. Everything is muddled and mixed, there are parts of various cultures entangles into one massive postmodern city. People seem to do as they please, with no regard for anyone other than themselves. In a scene where Leth chokes in a party, surrounded by people and only as he's passing out does someone help him. He is isolated even when he is surrounded by people, and isn't that the point? We are all isolated from each other, with barely any connections anymore other than virtual ones. In a sequence that portrays this virtual connection, Leth uses a suit to hook up to a kind of porn site where his mind is transported to a beach where the sun literally never sets. Here Bainsley and he form a bond and a connection that couldn't be achieved in reality. He goes there as often as he can, until something happens that discontinues his access to the site. He becomes introverted once again, without his virtual reality, actual reality wasn't the same.
Another scene that proves this detachement shows Leth attending a doctors appointment where he is placed on a table a few feet from a panel of three doctors. He is examined on the table while the doctors stay distanced. Technology has become so advanced that human interaction is almost void, even in determining medical conditions.
Meanings and Meaninglessness
Another trait of Postmodernity is meaninglessness. Not necessarily in the existentialist way, but meaninglessness of why we do what we do. We know the answer, we get an education to find a job we like that will benefit humanity in some way, so that we can afford to live and buy the things we like. That's the destiny society has set for us and there are no exceptions.
Leth answers the phone one day and someone on the other end says his name before being disconnected. Leth somehow imagines a divine being calling to finally give meaning to his life, and that without the call he will never be satisfied. Of course it could have been anyone on the phone, but Leth imagines something greater. As we all do, when we look for our meanings. We grow up thinking we are going to do amazing things, and for some, that is the case, but for most, life gets in the way, it interrupts and before you know it, we've lost years and we're still waiting on our call.
So While Leth waits for his call to give meaning too his life, he works on a project trying to prove the meaninglessness of life, while being interrupted by life in the form of his boss's son, his therapist and Bainsley.
Leth: Nothing adds up!
Joby: No. You've got it backwards. Everything adds up to nothing, that's the point.
Leth: What's the point?
Joby: Exactly! What's the point of anything?
Cyber Space and Hyperreality
CyberSpace is basically the internet, and any other communication network. Many of the aspects of Gilliam's film are set in cyberspace. Leth's relationship with Bainsley in Cyberspace is a non-reality, as we later see her dancing for other men to watch on her site. However, their relationship seeps into reality as she then asks Leth to run away with her, and he struggles to say no. They have the perfect relationship online, but in reality there is no such thing. The role of Pornography in cyberspace also has a deep meaning in the film. Leth, who appeared to have no interest in a love life before going to the virtual beach, was suddenly watching Bainsley on screen dancing. If the most important of physical connections (to reproduce) is turned into a virtual relationship, what does that mean for humanity?
The suit that Leth wears to hook up t the internet allows for him to feel what he feels in cyberspace, making sexual encounters realistic. If you can feel it and see it and hear it, is it real? That's another issue Postmodernity, reality and fiction are being blurred by cyberspace, we can no longer tell that real from the Simulacra, we are in a constant state of Hyperreality. Cyber relationships are a big part of today's society, however, the question of whether a relationship can be real online is getting harder to answer.
While I loved the set and visuals in the film, understood the 'nothingness' theme and enjoyed Waltz' performance as Qohen Leth, I felt the film lacked a bit, it was slow, and a bit staggered at times and although I get that the confusion of the film is exactly the point of it, it just wasn't as entertaining as I was hoping. And maybe that's the problem, Maybe I simply hate what our future has the possibility of being. We are living in Postmodern times, but that doesn't mean it wont continue to develop further and turn into something we don't recognize anymore. So three stars for a beautiful film visually, but a kind of boring one other than that. I mean you can't expect trying to find meaninglessness will be fun!